In a game with no real postseason implications, the Carolina Panthers built an early 14-point lead and never looked threatened from that point on, eventually doubling up on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 38-19. With Bucs starting quarterback Josh Freeman out injured, the Panthers were widely expected to win this one despite being the road team. However, it was mainly Tampa’s defensive struggles that cost them this one.
A win would have kept Tampa within two games of the last wild card spot with four to play but, realistically, both teams were already looking ahead to next year. With both teams now 4-8, Sunday’s game would suggest that Tampa has further to go to get back to being a good team.
Let’s look at some of the individual performances to see if we can identify anyone that is going to make an impact for either of these teams next year.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Cam You Dig It?
The progression of Cam Newton (+5.1) this year has been particularly exciting to watch. He’s made most of the headlines and highlight reels with his legs, carrying a season-high 14 times for 54 yards and his three touchdowns surpassed the single-season record for quarterbacks. However, it’s what he can do with his arm that will define his NFL career. That’s why it’s such a good sign when he can step up in the pocket with confidence to find an open man on third and long, as he did on a connection to Legedu Naanee early in the fourth quarter. He also rifled a superb pass over the middle to Naanee in traffic to increase the Panthers’ lead to 21-6 midway through the second quarter. It wasn’t just his legs and his arm, though. Newton even made a play with his hands, catching a 27-yard pass from Naanee on a gadget play to set up their second touchdown.
Greg Gets Hammered
Lost in an impressive performance by the Panthers offense was a disappointing display by tight end Greg Olsen (-3.3). Although he only had one catch, it was mainly his blocking that left a lot to be desired. On a third and short play in the first quarter, he let Da’Quan Bowers beat him inside to stuff the run for no gain and then, early in the fourth quarter, he was overwhelmed and driven into the backfield by Bowers, who stuffed DeAngelo Williams in the backfield for a four yard loss, even though he was being held. Olsen also surrendered a pressure in pass protection and seemed to look uncomfortable all day. Olsen has never been known as a great blocker, but he doesn’t usually look this overmatched and, on this occasion, he didn’t make up for it in the passing game as well as he often does.
Time To Play McClain?
Carolina’s pair of third round rookies have been starting on the defensive interior all year for the Panthers, but that streak was broken when Sione Fua suffered an injury in pre-game warm-ups. Terrell McClain (+1.6) responded with his best game of the season, even though they reduced his workload to a season-low 16 snaps. He made two particularly good plays against the run in this one but, more importantly, he didn’t have a negatively graded play for the first time all year. McClain seemed to respond well to having a veteran alongside him (usually Andre Neblett) rather than a rookie, so perhaps that’s something the Panthers coaching staff should bear in mind for both McClain and Fua.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
The Mega Bowers
As mentioned above, Da’Quan Bowers (+5.2) had his way with Olsen on a couple of running plays, but that wasn’t all he did in as good a performance as you’re likely to see from a rookie on a struggling team. Bowers had eight stops while the rest of the starting line-up combined for just seven and made a big impact as a pass rusher, with two sacks and three pressures. His versatility was also on display on the first play of the game, as he dropped into coverage and broke up a pass intended for Olsen. If he can play like that on a more regular basis next season, the Bucs will have an impact player that should be an ideal building block towards developing a dominant defense.
Double-J Has His Way
Despite Freeman’s absence, the Bucs got a decent performance at the quarterback position from Josh Johnson (+4.1). Johnson passed for 229 yards and a touchdown, adding 45 yards on five carries, leading a creditable five scoring drives. Johnson did throw an interception early in the third quarter, although it wasn’t totally his fault, as the pressure was on him immediately and the ball popped into the air as he was hit after a ball was snapped prematurely. Other than that, he did a good job of limiting his mistakes, especially when the protection held up, signified by a 99.2 QB rating when not under pressure.
Bush League Backers
The biggest issue for the Bucs in this game was the inconsistent and ill-disciplined play of their linebackers. Quincy Black (-3.3) had two missed tackles and Geno Hayes (-1.9) had one, as both found themselves getting blocked at the second level far too often. Although Mason Foster (-0.3) wasn’t quite as bad, he has just three stops in the last three games – not what you’d expect from a middle linebacker that plays every snap.
– Aqib Talib injured his hamstring on the fourth play of the game, which meant rookie Anthony Gaitor (-3.8), who had only been on the field for just two snaps entering this week, was forced into action as a cornerback in the dime package.
– Tampa Bay missed 12 tackles, six of them forced by Jonathan Stewart, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
– Conner Barth (+3.1) kicked four first half field goals for the Bucs, all of them from beyond 40 yards.
PFF Game Ball
Although he only passed for 204 yards, Cam Newton’s all-round performance was both fundamentally sound and exciting to watch. The sky’s the limit for this talented rookie.